There probably is absolutely no debate on the high level of awareness of this phrase “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solution”. If you just randomly pick a thousand employees across all levels and any organization and do a survey whether they have heard his phrase from their managers at any point in their career, you will get a big YES from majority. In 20th century we never had to debate or think much about this line since some very successful CEOs and organization (Succeeded till they were caught on the wrong foot) put this to practice and got some initial success, their whining and ever complaining employees vanished, problems seem to have disappeared. However, post the result of that strategy, were out in the open through lot of tragic incidents and the root cause analysis revealed cultural problems of those organization, it opened a fierce debate in the scientific community and management world whether this phrase has more drawbacks than bringing good to any organization. In this article I will first play the devil’s advocate and will focus on the pros of this phrase and then will present you some evidence to prove that in 21st century we probably have to say a good bye to this highly used phrase in management world and instead replace this by “Don’t bring me silence, bring me problems “
STOP COMPLAINING-TAKE ACTIONS
Margaret Thatcher, the longest serving British Prime Minister in the 20th century, one of the most influential politicians in the 1980s, used to say this phrase a lot, “Bring me Solutions. Not problems “
I cannot with conviction say that she was solely responsible for popularizing this (Since some research connect this to some of the quotes of Albert Einstein as well) however it did influence many, specially sitting high on corporate ladders and Governments. One of the reasons, this became so popular among managers was the fact that it serves couple of great purpose at the same time (seemingly).
1. It stops the culture of complaining
2. It empowers people to do problem solving themselves, activates thinking.
I would stick my neck out and say that it does work for the first part. It actually helps managers and leaders to curb a culture of complaints and as a result it frees up their time to do more productive work or thinking. As far as the 2nd point is concerned, it can empower some (only some) employees and drive a bit of accountability ( a bit ) in certain cases, it definitely activates thinking however it activates other things as well which we will discuss in later sections. Margaret Thatcher, Jack Welch, Roberto Goizueta, organizations like NASA, British Petroleum, GE, Coca Cola and others who were very fond of stopping the culture of complaining and be solution oriented always, all of them tasted roaring success during their good times but was it to last?
THE SIGNAL IT SENDS
Everything that goes up has to come down, it is a law of nature, even Newton understood it much later on. The key thing is how you go down and what can you learn from that downfall and then come back up. Margaret Thatcher’s downfall also came, and it came not because of any massive Global issues, but due to a very simple local issue. It was her unwillingness to consider other opinions and refusal to back down on what seemed a relatively minor domestic issue — a new system of local taxation called the poll tax. The poll tax (or community charge) was supposed to make local council finance fairer and more accountable.
Instead, it triggered civil disobedience and riots and a rebellion in her own Conservative Party. Shortly after, violent public protests erupted and her approval rating plummeted to 20 percent, the lowest in British history, she was forced to step down. From the BBC archives we come to know that the local government minister Michael Portillo and Thatcher’s environment secretary Chris Patten wanted to find a way effectively to abolish the poll tax seeing the problems arise however Thatcher stayed put and eventually she was proved wrong. However, Portillo and Pattern made their statements public much later. We do not know whether Portillo and Pattern really went all out to convince Thatcher during that moment of crisis to modify or abolish the poll tax or they decided to just raise this point without the same force of conviction (since Margaret Thatcher’s leadership style was close to an authoritative one and she did not like to listen to problems), however the culture of no complaints, no problems definitely did not help. If only those problems were listened to, Margaret Thatcher downfall might not have been that ignominious.
What we really need to focus on is, what signal does this send to the listener of the phrase “Bring me solution, not problems?” You can have all the good intentions behind the phrase however if the phrase is not sending the right signals to the listener, then even good intentions can backfire. Not every employee has the brains to propose a solution, not every employee has the authority to implement a solution, not every employee has the same corporate experience to visualize a viable solution, not every employee has the funding to implement a solution on their own and most importantly, not every problem has an easy solution. What a manager tells is “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” but what an employee hears is “Only raise those problems for which you have solutions, or else keep your mouth shut “.
Global CEO coach and TEDx speaker Sabina Nawaz in one of her Harvard articles wrote,
“The “bring me a solution” approach can also cause employees to shut down in fear, breed a culture of intimidation, and prevent some problems from surfacing until they’re full-blown crises”.
According to Wharton professor & organizational psychologist Adam Grant,
Solution-only thinking creates “a culture of advocacy instead of one of inquiry,” where each person comes into the situation locked into their way of solving the problem and lobbies hard for that particular solution rather than considering multiple perspectives.
If you are a manager or leader reading his article and specially if you have been using this phrase till now, then the above logic might have sounded interesting to you. However, being a manager myself, I know that nothing can convince you other than data and hard evidence and so I decided not to waste my time writing just an opinion article. Margaret Thatcher might be one small example and that too based on few assumptions but the below real-life events that you are about to read next, hopefully will force you to stop using the phrase in future.
THE BIG IMPACT
Polaroid’s Downfall - No introduction required for this company who gifted the world with instant camera, instant photo. I am sure many of you will still have a classic polaroid camera hidden in your closets. The Nostalgia can be compared to Nokia phones. Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid was the genius mind behind the invention, and he did not stop there. Land amassed 535 patents, more than any American before him other than the Great Thomas Edison. He was even the hero of Steve Jobs who often used to publicly talk about him. However, even after so many inventions and innovations at Polaroid, the success was short lived. There is a difference between YOU being a genius and YOUR ENTIRE COMPANY being a genius.
Many studies by prominent psychologists and researchers have found a core cultural issue at Polaroid, which was “Unable to welcome dissent”. Between 1948 and 1980 when the Camera industry was relatively stable, Polaroid’s journey was smooth. Problems were visible when disruptions and competitions came in. Digital revolution posed an important question, Will customer still prefer prints, or will they embrace digital photos? In 1980 Land was approached by Sony Founder Akio Morita who proposed a collaboration with Polaroid to create electronic camera which he envisioned as the future. Edwin Land dismissed the proposal since it was contrary to his own beliefs that customers would always want prints in their hand and quality of chemically processed photos will always be superior to that of digitally processed one. Instead of welcoming critical opinions about his choice, Land surrounded himself with devoted followers who would support his perspective and marginalized everyone at Polaroid who questioned his projects (He was working on instant movie camera called Polavision at the that time) . Considering Land’s reputation, the key decision makers also did not raise any alarms, it maybe also because they did not have any full proof solution to propose as an alternative. Polaroid’s downfall began as the popularity of digital media increased, competitors flocked the market. Things went so bad that even Polaroid got convinced about the future of digital photos, they came up with their own digital camera and launched it in 1996. They created the best-in-class digital camera for which they got awarded for technical excellence however the product flopped as by that time more than forty competitors were in the market.
Columbia Disaster (NASA) - Columbia was the first space shuttle to fly in space; its first flight took place in 1981, and it successfully completed 27 missions before the disaster. On its 28th flight, Columbia left Earth for the last time in January 2003. At the time, the shuttle program was focused on building the International Space Station. However, Columbia's final mission, emphasized pure research. The seven-member crew which included Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla performed around 80 experiments in life sciences, material sciences and other matters before beginning their return to Earth's surface. On Feb 1 2003 NASA’s space shuttle Columbia broke up as it entered earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board. NASA had to suspend all space shuttle flights for more than 2 years as the internal commission Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) investigated the root cause.
An investigation board determined that during Columbia’s launch a large piece of foam fell from the shuttle's external tank and breached the spacecraft’s left wing creating a hole, so when Columbia made it’s fiery re-entry, that hole on the left wing allowed atmospheric gases to bleed into the shuttle causing the disaster. This problem with foam had been known for years, and NASA came under intense scrutiny in Congress and in the media for allowing the situation to continue. The bigger question was, why this problem was not discussed and addressed, was there no one who saw that foam fall ?
A day after Columbia took off, several people within NASA saw a mystery object floating in the orbit, several people within NASA pushed to get pictures of the breached wing in orbit but NASA officials did not approve usage of orbital spy cameras to get a closer look. On August 4 2003, in an interview published on CBS news, one of the NASA manager Linda Ham who dismissed the possibility during Columbia's flight that the shuttle had been seriously damaged by foam defended her decisions and broke into tears. She told the reporter,
"Nobody wanted to do any harm to anyone. Obviously, nobody wants to hurt the crew. These people are our friends. They're our neighbors. We run with them, work out in the gym with them. My husband is an astronaut. I don't believe anyone is at fault for this."
However in the same interview she also said that she did not seek spy satellite pictures of the orbiting spaceship because even though engineers wanted pictures, none of them approached her about it during the 16-day flight and she could not ascertain who was making the request. It wasn't until after the accident that she learned some of the engineers who wanted the spy satellite pictures had taken part in her meetings, but never spoke up. Why was this silence? Why did they not speak up, pushed more and raise the necessary alarm as and when the problem was found?
Renowned organizational psychologist David Hofmann is one of the world’s prominent authorities on organizational culture building. His research post Columbia disaster was instrumental in assessment and improvements of NASA’s safety culture. His culture survey was completed by every NASA employee. David found that NASA’s culture focused too much on solutions and thus created a culture of advocacy which dampened inquiry. When people detected the mystery object in the orbit, they should have launched an inquiry immediately without thinking about solutions. The inquiry would have proved the hole the foam caused, and it could have been repaired on time saving the lives all the precious seven members onboard. The Columbia mission was the second space shuttle disaster after Challenger, which saw a catastrophic failure during launch in 1986. The Columbia disaster directly led to the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011.
Deep Water Horizon - Largest marine oil spill in history, caused by an April 20, 2010, explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig—located in the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon rig was operated by offshore-oil-drilling company Transocean and leased by oil company BP. That day the explosion killed 11 workers and caused 5 million barrels of black crude oil to start spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. It took 5 months to cap the well and created an environmental and financial disaster. The Deep-Water Horizon event caused BP to pay $7.8 billion in overall settlements and $17.6 billion fine was imposed on BP for causing environmental violation. BP Shares plummeted from $60 to $27 and for next 3 years could not even recover. The obvious question is, what caused the disaster ?
On the night of April 20 a surge of natural gas blasted through a concrete core recently installed by a contractor in order to seal the well for later use. Once released by the fracture of the core, the natural gas travelled up the Deepwater rig’s riser to the platform, where it ignited, killing 11 workers and injuring 17. Although this was a massive historic disaster, however it was not the first time for BP, a similar incident had occurred on a BP-owned rig in the Caspian Sea in September 2008. The scale of disaster that time did not make too many headlines though. The cultural study of BP suggests that BP always used to cut corners in order to stay on schedule and budget. If the solution of a problem seemed to be expensive, that problem was not entertained. According to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration ) records, 3 years prior to Deep-water Horizon incident, BP already had 760 willful safety violations. Safety suggestions from engineers onboard were not listened to. There were clear safety concerns not only on the rig but also among BP employees to speak up about the problems openly to officials because they did not have an easy and cheap solution to tackle those safety issues. Although in court trials BP admitted it’s role in the incident but it was too late.
Well, now that we have spent a lot of time discussing the problem and it’s repercussions, I am itching to continue writing this article and present you some tips on how you can tackle this issue and change the mindsets of managers and leaders who use this phrase a lot, in other words, present you a solution to this problem. However, I realize that if I do that, then I will be doing a tremendous injustice to my article. So let me just stop here with only the problem without solution and let me invite you all readers to comment below with your proposals on how to change this culture then ? How to create a safe space at workplace where people can raise hand as they have questions, as they see a problem ?